Within ten minutes of my arrival at Miami Beach I had several surprises.
My host stopped at a store to buy a siphon of gas. “Gas?” I queried, as the chauffeur came out with a thing that looked like a small oxygen cylinder. “Do you mean gas, or gasolene, or oxygen?” I asked, as the chauffeur deposited the cylinder in the car.
“Gas, natural gas, for cooking,” replied my host, smiling.
“It’s ‘bottled’ as it comes out of the earth.” “But how do you use it-isn’t it dangerous?” “Not at all. You’ve seen oxygen cylinders? Well, we feed it into the gas oven in the same way, by turning a tap.” “And it’s natural gas-taken straight out of the earth?” “Quite natural.” The car started, I sat back. But something else made me ask another question. “Just now your chauffeur put a coin into a machine standing by the kerb. Was he buying chewing- gum?” “No-he was reducing the rates.” I looked puzzled, and my host explained.
“He was putting a nickel in the park-o-meter. You pay five cents for twenty minutes if you want to halt your car in the main streets. It checks congestion, stops you leaving your car indefinitely, and helps the city’s revenue. The park-o-meter company pays a yearly sum for the right to erect their meters.” “And the visitors pay the rates!” “Part of them. We have to live on our visitors- we’ve got no income-tax.” “What!” I exclaimed. “No income tax and no inheritance tax.” “I wonder the whole world doesn’t migrate here.” “It will do one day. It’s getting like that now in winter.” I saw it was.
The streets were congested, both on road and pavement. Dearness of building space was forcing buildings up into the sky, as in New York, though the American needs no real inducement to Babalism. It is fitting he should build the world’s largest telescope, for he is always probing into the sky, as if anxious to get off the earth. We were now across the bridge, and out of the city, and began to run along a wide boulevard, divided by a magnificent line of poinciana trees, not yet in scarlet bloom. On either side of the boulevard the homes of the sun-seekers, in gardens shady with palms, and ablaze with flowers, gave a Mediterranean note to the scene.
On the left, not far away, one glimpsed the azure bay. There were six miles of this suburb running through the flat leafy land, leading to Coconut Grove, a close area to Miami.
Some two or three miles along our route we stopped at a wayside petrol station-for gasolene this time.
Again I was puzzled. The chauffeur lowered his window and gave the pump attendant what looked like a Yale key. “Was that a Yale key? ” I asked. “Yes-for the gasolene tank.” “You have a lock on it-you don’t trust your chauffeur?” I asked, thinking of those occasions on which I had seen the family servant receive the keys of the spirit cabinet. “Oh, yes-we’d trust Moses with anything. It’s the gasolene gangsters we have to protect ourselves from. If you leave your tank unlocked, they come round and siphon it empty.” The car started. I sat back again looking Miami Beach.
Already my mind was saturated with new impressions, and since these are the real joys of travel, I felt a growing satis- faction with this adventure. When there are no more questions to be asked I shall be ready for the Long Silence. We were now passing the house of a gentleman with innumerable millions who had lately died. His immense estate spread on either side of the main boulevard, and the stone walls, carved and scalloped, were surmounted by endless festoons of ramblers and creepers. Within the immense gardens stood a palace of pillared splendour, crammed with such treasures gathered from the Old World that the mind grew dizzy under the fabulous story of one man’s wealth, derived from selling ploughs and reapers to farmers. Eccentricity invaded the social as well as the territorial habits of this Nabob from the North. There were occasions when the great gates were locked fast against neighbours and all the outside world. A special train transported from New York the complete chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies for the sole entertainment of the secluded sybarite. For a week or more they brought to a garden that Haroun-al-Raschid would have envied an American Night’s Entertainment.
As my host humorously observed, the gentleman probably improved on his neighbours; the Follies certainly weren’t ugly, and not dull I I think there must have been a mile of these festooned walls bordering each side of the wide boulevard, but there was something amiss. Trees looked as if mastodons had taken mouthfuls out of their green tops, the palm trees appeared to have been plucked, great gaps appeared in the festoons of American Pillar, trailed from post to post. It was as though something had hit the whole estate. Something had. It was the September hurricane.
I was to hear more of that hurricane; I was to see its savage track of destruction wherever I went. Not unnaturally the Miamian and all the proud possessors of southern Florida land are ever ready to minimise the ruthless ravager of their earthly paradise, but as they point out, in the true spirit of hospitality, the hurricane in Miami Beach never comes when the visitors come.
There is a close season, honourably observed.
It is commemorated in the jingle known to all Floridians and Miami Beach citizen:
July, stand by
August look out you must
October all over
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